Original Research Paper
Building a Shared Language of Coping: Dynamics of Communication between Parents and Preschool Children
By Jan Deans, Erica Frydenberg and Rachel Liang
University of Melbourne
Deans, J., Frydenberg, E., & Liang, R. (2012). Building a shared language of coping: Dynamics of communication between parents and preschool children. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 61-83. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/886-shared-language-of-coping-communication-parents-preschool-children.html
This paper extends the current literature on social emotional development in the early years by providing an understanding of how young children comprehend and talk about everyday challenging situations and the way they cope with these. The paper also provides examples of how visual images in the form of Early Years Coping Cards may be used by the parents to engage young children in discussions about coping and coping-related activities in a family context. The focus of this paper is on parents’ engagement with their children as they talked about challenging situations and coping. The shared language between parents and children provides a forum to effectively engage in deeper meaningful conversations in a family context. This in turns provides a building block for children to develop social and emotional competence by learning how to share understandings through conversations with adults.
Key words: parent-child interaction, parent comunication, coping.
It is now accepted, that young children can be affected physically, emotionally and behaviourally by a range of stresses (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011) with the most common stressors faced being the feeling of uncertainty, fear of being abandoned by a significant adult, fear of toileting accidents and fear of being reprimanded or punished by adults ( Frydenberg, Deans & O’Brien, 2012; Youngs, 1995). As a consequence of the identification of young children being under stress, a critical question may be asked as to what young children do when they experience stressful situations.
It is during the preschool years, with the increasing number of opportunities to interact with others that children gradually develop their understanding of their own emotional responses and those of others. Emotional understanding can be defined as the social-cognitive ability to recognise and interpret the emotions of others (Martin & Green, 2005) and as research (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004) on theory of mind has shown, pre-schoolers gradually over time begin to comprehend the representational nature of beliefs, understand how emotions can be evoked by mental events, and predict others’ behaviour based on psychological traits (Thompson, 2006). Research has also uncovered that the ability to understand the emotions of others, can aid children in the development of social and empathetic skills (Denham, 1998) and are crucial for supporting general lifelong wellbeing and mental health and more specifically an easeful transition into school and early schooling success (Denham et al., 2012). The capacity to deal with emotions and be able to regulate them without externalising or internalising inappropriately is also important (Eisenberg et al., 2001). It is also recognized that conversations between parents and children, such as the ways in which they discuss the past, increases understanding of emotions (Salmon, Mewton, Pipe & McDonald, 2011; Van Bergen & Salmon, 2010). Whilst mothers and fathers often interact in different ways with their children, these language-based and playful interactions are seen to have a positive impact on children’s ability to interact with others (Kahen, Katz & Gottman, 1994).
Taking all this into consideration it is therefore important for educators and parents to help children to learn to understand and manage their emotions. In particular those that may be disturbing or challenging, by helping them to think constructively in regard to regulating and taking responsibility for directing their behaviour to decrease sources of stress (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Frydenberg & Deans, 2011a).
Traditionally, researchers have frequently drawn on definitions of coping from models of adult coping. More recently, conceptualisations of coping are explicated for the early developmental periods (Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007; Compas, 2009; Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, Thomsen & Wadsworth, 2001) and from research with children and adolescents, coping has been defined as the thoughts, feelings and actions that occur and are utilized to deal with challenging situations (Frydenberg, 2008). In this sense, coping goes beyond the emotion domain. It is akin to adaptation with situation, temperament, developmental and environmental factors, playing a part. Coping includes both volitional and automatic responses to stress. Thus, there are elements that include the internal emotional arousal and behaviours in response to the stressor, as well as the regulation of the source of emotional arousal (Losoya, Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). Compas (2009) noted the change in the preschool years where there is shift from interpersonal co-regulation to intrapersonal self-regulation between age two to five.
It is widely recognized that the family is the crucible of learning, providing a unique opportunity for helping children to understand their experiences and to feel safe and secure as they are developing their capacities to manage their emotions. Carpendale and Lewis (2004) argue that constructing an understanding of the mind in early childhood necessitates experiences of cooperative social interaction and opportunities to talk about mental states besides the child's personal inferences about the inner world of others. This emerging view is supported by studies which have focused attention on the role of language, and the social experiences accompanying language, in young children's developing theory of mind (Harris, de Rosnay, & Pons, 2005). It is evidenced that parents can enhance the social emotional development of their children by means of emotional facilitation in the conversations they have with their children. For example, instead of directing children as to how they ought to feel, parents can be effective in helping children to get in touch with their emotions, good or bad and helping them to understand that they can positively manage their feelings (Favez, 2011).
The development of emotional understanding has also been seen to be associated with how often parents discuss feelings with their children and the richness of their conversational prompts (Tenenbaum, Alfieri, Brooks, & Dunne, 2008). A study by Nelson & Fivush (2004) suggests young children can be helped to understand their personal experiences through the content and structure of parent-child conversation. Shared reminiscing has been identified as being valuable for young children, especially when past events may have been confusing or emotionally stressful for them. Shared conversations between parents and children can provide narrative coherence and structure to the child's representation of past events that have been emotionally confusing or challenging. Moreover, Hudson (2002) has also argued that talking about future events creates anticipatory event representations, which provide predictability about what will occur in the near term. In each case, understanding and memory in a conversational context are likely to be much different than when the child is alone, and conversation may help to reconstruct the child's recollection and comprehension in significant ways.
Furthermore, young children may model their individualized coping behaviours according to how the parents deal with stress (Seiffge-Krenke & Pakalniskiene, 2011). Family system theory characterises the family as a system of interdependencies, with changes in one subsystem having ramifications on all other subsystems (Grotevant & Cooper, 1986). As such, parents can support the social emotional development of young children and in particular facilitate their children coping with challenging situations by enhancing productive coping in a family context as well as modelling positive behaviours for young children.
Over recent years Frydenberg and Deans (2011a) have engaged with children, teachers and parents to determine the elements that enable the development of everyday coping skills for healthy social and emotional development in children aged 4-6 years. Their research has included:
- Phase 1 – 2008: Identifying preschool children’s coping responses and matching these with parent understandings of their children’s coping responses.
- Phase 2 – 2009: Development of visual representations of challenging situations, a tool which is used to stimulate children’s verbal responses about their coping strategies.
- Phase 3 – 2010: Investigation of the use of Early Years Coping Cards in Multiple Settings (teachers and parents).
- Phase 4 (reported in this study) – 2011: Investigation of parents’ use of Early Years Coping Cards.
The main findings from research Phases 1 to 3 show children can identify situations they find challenging or difficult to manage and a range of productive and non-productive coping strategies, and these are not well reported in the current literature. It also found that parents’ perceptions of their children’s coping vary from that of their children’s teachers and children. Another significant outcome has been the development of the Early Years Coping Cards, which is a visual resource designed specifically to stimulate conversations between adults and children on a range of situations that children aged 4-8 years have identified as challenging and difficult to manage (Frydenberg & Deans, 2011b). The Early Years Coping Cards comprise a set of ‘Situation Cards’ that depict the following situations: ‘losing something or someone special’, ‘saying goodbye to someone you love’, ‘being in trouble with an adult’, ‘scared of the dark’, ‘afraid of trying something new’, ‘being teased or bullied’, ‘being left out by your friends’, ‘broken toy’, ‘getting hurt’. The set of cards also includes ‘Coping Cards’ that depict both productive and non-productive coping strategies. The productive coping strategies include: ‘think happy thoughts’, ‘ hug a toy’, ‘play’, ‘help others’, ‘talk to an adult’ and ‘work hard’. The non-productive coping strategies include: ‘worry’, ‘run away’, ‘hide’, ‘scream’, ‘complain of pain’, ‘keep feeling to self’ and ‘blame yourself’.
This paper reports on Phase 4 of the research as mentioned above. The aim was to further understandings of how the Early Years Coping Cards could be used by parents with their young children in a family context, to stimulate conversations about situations that the children found challenging and difficult to manage. As Bergen and Salmon (2010, p. 51) point out, ‘conversations between parents and their children are a key process by which children come to internalize important socio-cognitive skills’ and this research aims to bring into focus parent/child conversations in order to build a shared language of coping.
The study adopted a qualitative approach to research; a field of inquiry that intersects with a number of disciplines and subject matter in education, psychology, history, anthropology, medical science and sociology. Qualitative research ‘seeks to understand a situation by focusing on the total picture rather than breaking it down into variables’ (Ary, Jacobs Razavieh, 2002, p. 22). This study aimed to provide a holistic picture of the lived experience of parent/child conversations within a natural setting and to capture the participant’s perspective of the experience, highlighting the diversity of meaning and experience that might exist within the particular situation under review. Van Manen (1990) reminds us that ‘quails’ means ‘whatness’ and hence qualitative research aims to investigate the ‘whatness’ or nature of a particular phenomenon. In this study, the aim was to uncover the nature of parent-child conversational interactions with the emphasis placed the investigation gaining an understanding of the processes and meanings behind parent/child conversations. Hence qualitative research, with its capacity to uncover the “importance of the subjective, experiential life world of human beings” (Burns, 1990. p. 9) provided an appropriate methodology to support the discovery of personal meaning and the nature of the experience of parent/child conversations.
Setting and Participants
The research took place in an inner city long day preschool in Victoria, Australia. Fifteen parents (n=15), nine mothers (n=9) and six fathers (n=6), volunteered and each was a parent of a four-year-old child, boys and girls attending the preschool where the research was being undertaken.
Prior to the commencement of the research, ethics approval was granted by the Human Ethics Research Committee at the University of Melbourne, Australia (HERC Project No. 0830331). This consent was given in response to the guiding principles for directing an inductive social science research project. In the first instance, all participants in the research were provided with a Plain Language Statement that described the nature and consequences of the research on the understanding that the participants would voluntarily agree to be involved without any form of coercion. Informed consent was also granted by the preschool involved and as per the principles of Code of Ethics the research prioritized safeguarding the privacy and confidentiality of the participants. Inherent within the qualitative research paradigm was the collection of detailed description of the participant’s experience and views so protection was built into the design by creating pseudonyms for each participant for the purposes of reporting.
Materials and Procedures
The Early Years Coping Cards (Frydenberg & Deans, 2011b) were introduced and distributed at the first focus group meeting. Parents were asked to select the Situation Cards that were most relevant to their individual family situations. They were given guidance as to how to use the cards with their children using the ‘see-think-feel-do’ approach’:
- what do you see in this picture?
- what do you think is happening in the picture?
- how do you feel about what is happening in the picture?
- has this ever happened to you?
- if this has happened to you what did you do to make yourself feel better?
Parents were also provided with a pro forma with the above guiding questions, which they could use to record their conversations on their use of the Coping Cards with their children in the family setting. They were given the opportunity to elaborate and explain their written responses during the second and third focus group sessions detailed below.
The Focus Group Method
The focus group method was selected for its capacity to generate an opportunity to collect data from the group interactions and to provide a safe and familiar environment where parents could share their experiences in the company of other parents who were also interested in learning more about how they could support their children’s capacity to manage challenging situations. As Denzin and Lincoln (2003) point out, focus groups offer a collectivist rather than an individualistic research method and provide an effective way ‘way of listening to people and learning from them’ (Morgan, 1998 p. 9).
Three parent focus groups were conducted at the preschool on three evenings, for one hour, over Term 3 and 4 in 2011. They were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis. Targeting a small sample of parents allowed the researchers to create an environment where they were able to gather large amounts of information in a short space of time and as facilitators, record the stories that were shared, and in so doing begin to more fully understand how the parents talked about challenging situations with their children, what vocabulary they used and the form of their questioning when interacting with their children.
The three focus group sessions
In the first session, the research project was overviewed and the concept and theory of coping presented by the researchers. The importance of social emotional competence in contributing to pre-schoolers’ wellbeing and success within the school environments was highlighted (Deans, Frydenberg & Tsurutani, 2010). As indicated participating parents were introduced to the Early Years Coping Cards and provided with a data collection pro forma, which they could use to record the outcomes of their conversations and also use as a memory boost to share during the next scheduled Focus Group. It was understood by the parents that the aim of the research was to collect information about parent child conversations in a natural setting. Parents were asked to speak naturally with their children using the cards as a visual prompt.
The aim of the second session was to help deepen parents’ understandings of social and emotional development in pre-schoolers with an overview of the developmental milestones for ages 3 through 5 presented to them (Berk, 2009; Feldman, 2010). Common stressors for children of this age were introduced (Frydenberg & Deans, 2011a) as were practical strategies about communication and active listening (Gordon, 2000; Hutchby, 2005) to support parents to enhance their interactions when using the Coping Cards with the children. Feedback was obtained from parents following their use of the Coping Cards and parents asked to select a different set of cards to use with their children again in the family situation along with an additional pro forma for recording the outcomes of the conversations.
The final session brought parents together to share their experiences following their additional use of the Coping Cards and to ascertain how the interactions unfolded between parents and their children. Parents also provided unidentified written comments on a feedback form that was distributed at the conclusion of the session.
As indicated earlier the research aimed to uncover the nature of the parent-child conversations, the capacity of young children to share their thoughts and ideas about challenging situations and finally the efficacy of the Coping Cards as a support for parents in their conversations with their children.
The transcripts created from the audio recording of the focus groups and the written participants responses, and the final feedback form generated rich description for analysis. To ensure that the participants’ written and verbal descriptions drove the analysis the data was subjected to word and theme based coding which resulted in the categorisation of responses into the categories identified by the Situation and Coping Cards.
Parent Use of the Situation Cards
Parents reported using the Situation Cards with their children mostly during family time such as, at the dining table, on a quiet afternoon, lying in bed or sitting in a park. Most of the parents adopted the ‘see-think-feel-do’ approach with their children when discussing the situations on the cards. Besides the suggested approach of ‘see-think-feel-do’, parents were creative in their use of the cards with the children; for example, one parent asked the child to choose five cards that reflected his worries. This was followed by a discussion of the reasons for picking the particular cards.
From Figure 1 (shown on the next page) it can be seen that the nine Situation Cards were each used to some extent by the parents but the most frequently used cards were those depicting losing something or someone special, worrying about leaving someone you love and being in trouble with an adult.
Examples offered by parents, both in a written form and following discussions during the group sessions about their interactions with their children when using the situation and coping cards, are presented in Table 1. Responses to each of the situations are presented in Table 1 and discussed more fully after the Table. The detailed discussion presents verbatim comments of children about the situations, as reported by their parents
Figure 1. The percentages of the total number of situations discussed between parents and children (see the printed paper in the journal or the pdf copy for Figure 1)
Table 1. Examples provided by parents from their usage of the Situation Cards with their child
Guiding questions for each situation:
Situation Children Responses
Losing something or someone special
Mother of Ava reported her child thought the pictures were sad and that she didn’t want to talk about it. She also mentioned her daughter got really upset and there were tears because she had lost something (a rabbit) at the preschool that was never found. During that incident, child Ava suggested putting up notices and asking people. The mother found it interesting that the event happened 6-8 months earlier and still had remained unresolved for her daughter: ‘when I just mentioned big losses and little losses....... for her that obviously was a big loss in her life.
‘Child Ella: ‘when you die if you are good you will come back and turn into something else.’
Child Ella :‘I don’t want Tikki (our cat) to die. If Tikki died mum would cry and I would cry. Tikki is the fluffiest little cat.’
Child Michael: ‘Granddad died. I want granddad so we can play ‘moustache’.
Father of Olivia provided an example of how his daughter resolved the loss of her teddy bear: ‘she resolved it by blaming us ..... she decided her parents left it at the Docklands......not her and that was why she got a new teddy......that was her resolution........we quite often get its all my (parent) fault at home about things.’
Worrying about leaving someone you love
Child Anna ‘I did (worry about leaving) at Waratah room (3 year old preschool group) and start of Wattle room (4 year old preschool group).
Child Jacob mentioned ‘go back home and feel sad because his sister has left’. He mentioned someone gave him a cuddle once and that had helped him to feel better.
Child Michael reported feeling angry at this situation as he just wants his mum. He chose to sit on his own so that nobody would talk to him and he will feel better after a while. He also mentioned talking to an adult and thinking happy thoughts as a good strategy to calm himself.
Child Ella associated the situation with a little boy feeling scared and sad first time walking in the water. She mentioned she ‘would be scared too if they were in Bali and she hadn’t had her swimming lessons yet.’
Being in trouble with a teacher or parent
Child Michael reported sometimes feeling the same as the little boy because he wants his mother and he doesn’t like it at preschool when people hurt his feelings.
Most frequently nominated strategy: ‘say sorry to mummy’, ‘have a cuddle, say sorry I did not mean it- l love you, ‘say sorry to dad when he is angry.’
Mother of Lucas provided an example of how her child associated the feeling with a physical sensation in the body: ‘how did this (being told off by a teacher) make you feel? “it is the same thing as when you tell me off....same just by another person. It makes my head spin.”’
Fear of the dark
Child Michael: “There might be monsters!”
Child Samantha: “he looks scared & worried about night- thinks there are scary things out there- wants to go out- owls/bats- wants to see them flying.”
Afraid of trying something new
Child Samantha reported feeling scared that she might fall off and hurt herself when she first rode on a bike with no training wheels.
Child Anna mentioned she felt sad when her dad told her to eat mushrooms or broccoli because she didn’t like it.
Children provided coping strategies such as ‘dad can take me home and do it another day – go out again and do it again and again and then I would do it all by myself and dad would not have to help me “practice”, ‘someone could hold me and help me’, or ‘ I want mom on the other side (of the bike)’.
Being bullied or teased
Child Ella: ‘I’d feel sad like I am going to cry....’ She also told her parent that in such situation, she wants to be the girl with the brown pony tail so that she can tell the bully ‘stop doing that to my friend!’
Child Samantha described it as a girl pointing at another girl and not being nice so the other girl is sad ........said “this girl is being disrespectful and the sad girl was being respectful.......”
Wanting to belong to a group
Children commonly identified feeling sad if they were the little girl
Copings strategies proposed: ‘Can I join in please?’, ‘tell teacher/somebody’.
Having a broken toy
Children commonly identified feeling sad if they were the little girl
Child Michael: ‘I would worry if my ipod broke.’
Child Anna: ‘ I will be sad – tell mum to sew it up!’
Child Anna: ‘ He has fallen over and hurt himself. Putting a band aid on (might help).’
Child Samantha: ‘ Boy looks like he has a bruise on his knee...looks like he is crying. His mum could call the ambulance.’ When asked ‘Has this happened to you?’ she responded: ‘Not that big – little one – it was bleeding – I fell over on the path at kinder’ and mentioned a friend put a band aid on it was the resolution.
Situation: Losing something or someone special
Parents reported that their children recognised the emotion being represented on the card as ‘sadness’. A number of children commented that the “cat had gone away to another house”. One child suggested that the boy in the picture could “go to where he [the cat] went: or buy another cat”. Another child suggested that the boy wanted “the cat to come back as something else”. Child Ella associated the picture with her cat and expressed the fear of losing her cat as that would make her sad. Several children associated the feeling of sadness not only with the loss of a pet but also with the loss of a family member.
Mother of Lucas offered an interesting account of how her child picked the ‘losing something or someone special’ card as his favourite. The mother reported that his friend’s father had died last year and his grandfather eight months ago. And she asked her child why this card was his favourite. Her child reported “it just is”. The mother noted he wanted to stop there but she said “does it remind you of something?” Her child said “my grandpa is dead” which was responded to by his mother “how did you feel then?” The child said, “I don’t know.... I wasn’t sad”. His mother summarised the situation by saying “I think that he was denying his feelings.”
Those children who chose the losing something or someone special card identified it with the death of a pet or a family member and talking about losing something prompted conversation around the feeling of sadness. Coping strategies such as crying, blaming others, discussing with parents and getting a replacement, are some of the ways that children reported dealing with their losses.
Situation: Saying goodbye to someone you love
Parents reported that their children identified closely with their experience of saying goodbye to their parent when they separated from them at preschool. They reported a range of children’s responses such as: “she doesn’t want to... she wants to be with the mama”, “he’s not feeling well, I think he wants his sister, he’s worried his sister is leaving”, “mum saying good bye and the little girl doesn’t want to go to kinder”. Children also offered a range of strategies to cope with this situation, such as: “walk slowly into kinder and say it’s okay, my friends will look after me”; “ask the teacher for a cuddle and give myself a kiss on the hand”.
Father of Anna openly shared with the group that his daughter had been experiencing separation issues when she first started preschool and he was able to relate to her anxiety, but was now pleased that she has “worked it through it”. He raised the dilemma of protecting his children from challenging experiences or letting them experience these situations to develop resilience. He said: “It’s a bit tough in the playground, so sometimes I say, don’t go to the playground. I don’t want them to have to deal with it but maybe they really need to deal with it.”
In summary, children identified the situation as separating from their parents when going to preschool while some were able to associate elements depicted on the card with a challenging situation that they have encountered previously. Once again parents reported that many children used the word ‘sad’ and were able to spontaneously nominate strategies they had used in the past in handling this situation, including cuddling a toy or someone, self-talk and thinking happy thoughts. Parents expressed concerns in protecting their children from harm without overprotecting them from challenging situations, as a way of building resilience.
Situation: Being in trouble with an adult
With the scenario of ’being in trouble with an adult’, parents reported that most of the children had assumed the boy in the picture had done something wrong that made the adult angry and upset. Most used only the word ‘sad’ to describe the feeling and suggested saying sorry would help in this situation. It may be that apologising might be the only strategy young children can call upon at this stage to deal with the uncertainties of the situation.
Situation: Scared of the dark
Parents reported that children willingly expressed feelings about being scared and worried at night. Some talked about fear of lightening and some worried about frightening or “scary” animals such as monsters or bats. Telling or seeing mum or dad was reported as the common strategy to ease the fear. Creative strategies such as “Jump, sing a song, turn on my light and have a bit of a play” were suggested to cope with the fear of the dark.
It was clear from the parent group that not every child was scared of the dark. Mother of Lily reported that her child communicated to her that she didn’t find the night a scary time: She said, “no Mummy, my door is always a little bit open and there is always light coming in, why are we even talking about this?”
Situation: Afraid of trying something new
Children identified feeling scared and worried when attempting new things such as trying a new food or riding on a bike. They were able to associate the scenario depicted on the card with the past experiences they had had. To cope with situations like riding a bike for the first time, getting support from an adult was a common strategy. For trying a new food, one child suggested to “just give it a go by trying a bit”.
Situation: Being teased or bullied
In response to the usage of the situation card ‘being teased or bullied’, parents reported their children understood the concept of being bullied with one child saying: “bullies are those who look angry and being mean to the other girl”. Children also articulated feeling upset and would cry, if their friends teased them. They provided a range of coping strategies that they would use in such situations which included “walk away and think she (the bully) is a horrible girl”, “walk away and go home and not come back until they were nice to me”, “ask the teachers why they are being naughty”, “tell teachers or my friends and they would cuddle me”, “hug a toy or play”, “sit quietly or calm”, “think happy thoughts”, and “get my own toy”.
In the focus groups, mother of Samantha expressed that she was surprised by the sophisticated use of vocabulary and the coping strategy repertoire that her daughter had when handling the situation of being teased: “she was relating to the language (being respectful) that they used in a positive way. She said she would just walk away and ask her teachers why they [other children/child] are being naughty. She clearly has coping strategies.” Mother of Ava also highlighted in the focus groups that she was astonished by her child’s level of thinking, feeling and reasoning. She gave an example of how her daughter commented on the ‘being bullied’ situation card: “she said that you always get bullied outside in the playground.... Ava thinks that there are kids that don’t like her for instance; she thinks that they are the ones that have done damage to her”.
Situation: Being left out by your friends
In relation to the situation card ‘wanting to belong to a group’, parents reported that their children communicated feeling sad if they were the little girl who just stands there and cannot join in while watching all the other girls having fun. Children reported to their parents that in such situation they might say: “can I join in please” or go “see a teacher” or “tell somebody”.
Mother of Lucas described at the parent group how her four-year-old child responded differently to how his six-year-old brother did. She said, “It’s quite interesting that the older one had more mature ideas such as helping the little one. The older responding with words like ...sad...scared. He couldn’t use other words but the younger one said, broken in the heart. I wonder where he got that? It was interesting to compare.”
Situation: Broken toy
For the situation card ‘broken toy’, parents reported on the pro forma that their children’s responses to the question “how would that make you feel?” included feeling sad, angry and worried. Children identified the situation with their past experiences of having something at home that was broken or damaged such as a washing machine or an Ipod. Children suggested that telling an adult would help to resolve this situation.
In the focus groups, mother of Ava reported this situation card elicited similar responses in her child to the ‘losing something or someone special’ card. “Ava revisited the memory of a broken teddy and to her that was a big loss, which has remained unresolved”.
Situation: Getting hurt
Parent responses indicate that children can readily identify with the situation of ‘getting hurt’. One child suggested that the boy on the card “Is looking sad and is going to cry because he has a bruise on his knee”. Parents also indicated that their children readily nominated practical solutions when prompted with the situation card. For example, child Samantha proposed that for this situation, she would “put a bandage on it or mum would call the ambulance – go in the ambulance to the hospital.” She also mentioned she had once “fallen over on the path at the preschool and I was hurt. My friend helped me to put a band aid on it and that had made me feel better”. Children also suggested coping strategies such as: hugging a toy or play to help them to recover from the pain of getting hurt.
Coping Responses of children
Figure 2 indicates the range of situations discussed by parents and children and the number of coping strategies that children reported to their parents. Children in this study readily identified a variety of coping strategies when confronted with challenging situations such as worry about leaving and being bullied or teased. It might be that they have experienced these situations often enough to develop a repertoire of coping skills. Concrete strategies such as talking to a teacher or hugging a toy are some of the most frequent ones that children in this study have spontaneously nominated as a way of coping with a hypothetical stressful situation. The strategies provided were more concrete and/or problem-solving oriented rather than reflecting on emotions.
Figure 2. Number of coping strategies (see the printed copy of this paper for Figure 2)
Parents’ reflections on the use of the Early Years Coping Cards
During the focus group sessions parents also commented that their use of the coping cards allowed them to engage with their children in a discussion of “what might you do differently next time?” In general, parents found that the images portrayed on the coping cards were helpful in preparing their children to cope with adversity. Some parents reported that they found it challenging to engage their children in discussions around stressful situations. Some parents felt uncomfortable to bring up negative topics/situations with their children. Father of Olivia raised this issue in the focus group: “Do you think we hone in when they [children] say they are sad or bring up a negative, as parents we focus on it a lot more, as parents.... on negative issues? If there is a happy situation we say yep that’s fine and move on......once a child says this is a sad situation…as parents we notice the negative bits ....it’s natural to worry about our children and I feel a need to explore my child’s identified negative experiences.” Father of Jacob also shared his worries as a parent when something went wrong. “My child blames herself. Instead of saying, I shouldn’t have taken it to kinder, oh it’s bound to get lost. She blames herself. I tried to talk about it, I tried to say Dad makes mistakes and you made a mistake”. Although some parents expressed that they were hypersensitive and uncomfortable dealing with conversations about negative events, some parents were creative in their use of the cards to elicit these discussions in a natural way. For example, mother of Samantha mentioned she left the cards on the dining table to see which one her daughters would pick any of them up and how she would respond to that. Mother of Lily also reported after using the cards for the first time, she started talking about these sorts of situations away from the cards and whenever it seemed appropriate.
From the feedback on the use of the cards, parents highlighted that their involvement in this project made them realise that “pictures are powerful tools to help bring up the depth and variety of emotions their child is capable of”. They also found it helpful “in hearing and sharing other parents’ experience and how they dealt with stuff”. Comments made by mother of Samantha exemplified how the use of coping cards could help parents to reflect on their children’s ways of coping:
“I found by looking into this and reflecting back on what happened with Samantha over the last few months and looking at her behaviour, I think if we had the benefit of thinking in this framework we probably would’ve had a lot more progress a whole lot quicker because we could’ve understood each other a lot more, worked through those behaviours a lot sooner, so it could’ve made her life easier…so it’s a benefit from that point of view because you can bring things forward and your understanding happens a little bit earlier.”
This study demonstrated that children in the preschool years are able to communicate about emotions as suggested by Eisenberg et.al. (2001). The data suggests that the children often used the word ‘sad’ to describe their feelings in response to challenging situations. The images on the coping cards enabled children to draw on their past experiences and to revisit issues that had not resolved. For example, child Ava revisited the memory of a broken teddy and to her that was a big loss, which remained unresolved. Engaging children in conversations in a safe and familiar environment with someone they trust is likely to facilitate emotional skill development (Salmon et al., 2011).
The social construction of knowledge is also reflected in the children’s responses, with a likely impact on healthy relationship building being an outcome as highlighted by Kahen et al. (1994). For example, an issue such as being bullied or teased can be devastating for the young child’s developing confidence and self-esteem. Children in this study demonstrated the capacity to stand up for themselves and their friends in such a situation. To cope with being bullied or teased, children not only require the capacity to comprehend the situation and be able to think through appropriate responses but also the vocabulary and the caring support of adults. These needs are reflected in the nominated coping strategies that were forwarded by the children in the study. Examples provided by the parents also elucidated that adults sometimes underestimate the young child’s capacity to assess emotional responses to situations and to be able to talk through their feelings and responses.
This was a single site case study where the research benefited from the participation of a homogenous parent population in inner-city Melbourne. It would be desirable to extend the study to multiple settings in a number of different locations thus providing a more diverse data source. Insights to be gauged from diverse settings would provide clarity as to how to implement parenting programs that focus on early years coping.
In summary, the three focus group sessions with parents generated further understandings about how parents can support the social emotional development of young children through discussions about coping with challenging situations. They also demonstrated that there is value in having a readily accessible tool for parents and their children to discuss what feelings might arise in those situations and what coping strategies the child might access. This research has revealed the scope for expanding pre-schoolers’ repertories of words that describe emotions and coping strategies and highlights the importance of parental involvement in developing early years coping skills. It has demonstrated the benefits of focus group sessions as a safe space in allowing parents to share their experience and concerns in discussing challenging situations with children as well as the importance of providing parents with knowledge and skills to support their parenting.
This Phase 4 research of the Early Years Coping project provided an opportunity for parents to gain a deeper insight into their children’s capacity to articulate their thoughts, feelings and actions about how they manage everyday challenging situations. The multiple examples of rich descriptive text presented highlight the capacity of young children and their parents to engage in productive conversations around matters that they might not have spoken about without the stimuli of the images to represent stressful situations and coping options. These descriptions also uncover the value of parents prioritizing engagement in targeted conversations with their children, highlighting also the important role parents’ play in the emotional lives of their children. The study also illustrates that children can learn about and adopt coping practices from their parents at a very young age and it can be seen that such engagements between parents and their children serve to foster relationship building and the development of a shared language of coping.
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With thanks to the parents and children who participated in this research.
About the Authors
Jan Deans is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and Director of the University's research and demonstration Early Learning Centre. Jan’s research interests include Arts-based Teaching and Learning, Literacy Development in the Early Years, Social-emotional competence in the Early Years. She has worked with Indigenous communities in Australia and with children and teachers in China, Singapore, Japan and New Zealand.
Erica Frydenberg is a Principal Fellow in psychology in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne and is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society; an elected member of its Board 2007-2009 and 2011-2014. She has extensive experience as an educational, clinical and organisational psychologist and has authored and co-authored over 100 academic journal articles and chapters.
Rachel Liang is a registered psychologist and a recent graduate of the Masters in Educational Psychology programme at the University of Melbourne. Since 2011, Rachel has worked as a research assistant on an extension of the Early Years Coping research, focusing on understandings of how parents can support the social emotional development of young children and in particular coping with challenging situations. Her research interests also include elements from positive psychology such as mindfulness, the concept of flow and subjective wellbeing.
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